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Why do I like baseball so much?
I asked myself this question a couple of weeks ago as I watched a young Toronto Blue Jays team stream onto the field with elation after clinching a berth in this year’s wild Major League Baseball playoff bracket.
I asked myself this question again last week as I watched the same team stare blankly from the dugout as they were eliminated from the Wild Card series by the Tampa Bay Rays.
What is it about this game that makes me keep watching, even when I know the odds are always going to be stacked against attaining the ultimate success: winning the World Series?
What is it that makes them keep playing, coming back day after day, year after year, living a life of athletic discipline that I could only aspire to? Is it actually for the World Series, or is there something more that they play for? Is there something greater at stake, regardless of who wins?
I can’t answer for them. But for me, the answer is a simple one: hope.
This year hasn’t given us much to cheer for. I needn’t rehearse all of the grave crises facing our world. The return of professional sports, or a particular team’s quest for the World Series, seems like it should be pretty low on our emotional priorities list. There are many more important battles being fought.
But maybe, in this strange, uncertain year, where all the old certainties, from the metaphysical to the everyday, have been thrown into disarray, it is the playing of the game that is itself the victory.
This has been a year in which I’ve seen the inconceivable happen with seemingly more regularity than the expected. I never thought I’d live through a global pandemic. I never thought I’d live in a world where everyone needed to wear a mask in public. I never thought that the border between Canada and the United States would be closed and that I’d be unable to travel across it for several months.
But maybe that’s the true nature of human existence. Maybe it was I who was the one living in a “bubble.”
That’s why for me, the return of Major League Baseball was such a relief. It was, at least, the return of something familiar, something refreshingly trivial, to break up the monotonous seriousness of living in such a gravely incomprehensible world.
Even then, there were many reminders that among things to be aspired to these days, complete normalcy isn’t one of them. The piped-in crowd noise, the cardboard cutouts in the seats, the Blue Jays playing in exile in Buffalo: these were reminders that for all the unpredictability of the game on the field, the unpredictability outside the stadium walls is far more acute.
We know, I know, that the world is not going to be saved by clutch hits, diving catches, and hundred-mile-an hour fastballs. But in a world where the object of our hope often appears distant, the act of hoping itself, even in something small, like a late-inning rally to overcome a deficit, becomes something worth clinging onto more than clinching a playoff berth.
If we didn’t have the opportunity to hope in the small things, perhaps we’d forget what it’s like to hope at all. In a world where so much is out of my control, where I feel that I no longer trust myself to find the answers to basic questions in my own life, maybe the act of trusting that these guys will tie it in the 9th then walk it off in extra innings, is a valuable practice in trusting the dynamism and resiliency of the human spirit, in placing hope in others when I find it difficult to find reasons for hope in myself.
Even when your team loses, as you knew that they probably would, in that annoyingly rational part of your mind that said these guys only had a 1-in-30 chance of making it, there remains the hope: This is a young team. They’re just getting started. They’ll be back.
We live in a world where we’re all too starkly reminded that “they’ll be back,” is often not true. We know the loss, not of games or championships, but of loved ones, of relationships, of dreams.
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The best, most promising teams, we know, don’t always make it. Even if they do make it, then it’s unlikely they’ll be able to repeat it next year. Trades. Injuries. Free agency. Unfulfilled expectations and potential. It’s tempting to surrender to the thought that “just short,” “not yet,” “next year,” may actually mean “never.”
But maybe there’s a stubborn wisdom in the act of saying, “they’ll be back,” a wisdom that emanates from the deepest sources of hope of the human spirit. A wisdom that sees this truth: while no victory is definitive in this life, so also is no defeat.
For those of us who make the sign of the Cross as we step into the batter’s box of life each day, whether we’re riding a hot streak or in the middle of a slump, we’re reminded that we’re part of the same team as a group of men and women for whom “they’ll be back” was supposed to never apply. Their leader taken from them and entombed in stone, they themselves scattered in fear. They had no hope of their own, it was given back to them in the person of the one who they loved, and more importantly, who loved them.
So, when I say to myself, “they’ll be back,” when I say “yes” to the hope of a playoff run next year, it’s a reminder that even coming up short right now was utterly gratuitous: to even be playing the game, to be in a position to lose today’s game, could very well not have happened at all. If I can place my hope in such a down-to-earth game of throwing, catching, and hitting a ball, in a group of young men in powder-blue jerseys, playing a game over which I have no control, I am reminded that hope is not futile. I am reminded that I can still place my hope in things above.
“They’ll be back.” Maybe this statement is a small sign, a vestige of that greater hope within us that one day, the ones whom we love will indeed be given back to us, and us to them. Of that day, when we can all gather, unmasked, around the table of the Lord, going up to the altar of God in the joy of our youth.
Will I see that day? Will we actually win? The answer isn’t as easy for me as it once was. But I can still take the field each day. I can still find people worth cheering for. I can live in hope.